Detroit, I wish I’d known you in your prime

My dear, lovely, forlorn Detroit. I wish I had had an opportunity to meet you earlier in life, during your younger and, no doubt, more beautiful years. Don’t get me wrong—I’m not saying that you’re disposable, and to be shunned now. You’re just . . . in need of an arm around your shoulder, a little bit of love, and perhaps some way to regain the beauty that I know must still be there, skin-deep.

I had been warned by a couple of friends, prior to our first meeting, that you might be a little . . . worse for the wear. One friend told me that the last time she was in Detroit, she was so depressed at seeing what must have been a great city once. And of course, I had seen on the news that since the 2008 recession, you’ve been hit very hard—perhaps harder than most. Tales of a woeful economy, high number of foreclosed homes ($16,000 houses for sale, with nary a buyer!), and sad, crumbling buildings, abounded. But I didn’t want to believe it. I wanted to think that there was exaggeration in those words and images.

So it makes me sad to say that the accounts of your demise were not too far off. Wait, wait, now before you think that I’m too down on you, let me clear up something: You still have a lot going for you. I shall enumerate:

1- Your buildings really are beautiful, and I can tell that you once took great pride in your shapes and structures and architectural diversity. I love the mixture of Art Deco with the more modern constructs like the shining glass skyscrapers on the waterfront and the tube-shaped buildings near the Joe Louis Arena.


2- Speaking of the Joe Louis Arena, what a thrill it was to stand there under all your Stanley Cup banners. It was pleasant to see such an enthusiastic crowd out on a Saturday night, noticeably proud of its sports team. Despite Detroit’s down-and-out status, your supporters are still pumped about their Red Wings and Lions (and Comerica Park is also gorgeous, by the way.)

3- It’s not just your hospitality industry, but everyday folks also seemed courteous and genuinely nice. From our hotel staff, to the IHOP server (we have kids; we went twice), to people giving us directions on the street: When they were dripping with “honey” or “dear”, or placing a hand on someone’s shoulder to guide, or responding to a “Thank you” with the typically American “Unh-huh”, they still managed to sound friendly in a very sincere way. (I have more often than not noticed this when travelling to the States: many people in the U.S. seem genuinely friendlier than here in Canada. Well, except in New York, which, although not outright rude, seemed to me just nonchalant.) I was also pretty surprised that I didn’t see a single panhandler in all of six days.

4- Your Detroit People Mover train is fast, simple, cheap (only 50 cents per passenger, under 5 is free) and well-planned, for such a small downtown. You know me—I’m a sucker for a good transit system in any city I visit. The small drawback though, is that it runs only clockwise, so if a visitor with young children wanted to backtrack four stations, they’d have to ride the whole 25-minute circuit again.

5- You still have excitement and nightlife on a Saturday night, and some pretty nice restaurants and pastry shops. Too bad downtown Detroit looks alive only on a three-block strip in Greektown.

6- You still have a lot of class: I was very impressed to see all the couples dressed to the nines, streaming out of the Detroit Opera House. The Westin looked wonderfully lit-up and buzzing with action on the weekend. And your library is beautiful on the outside (though you really should relinquish the links to the automotive industry. I mean, really—an Automotive Authors Book Fair?)

Now unfortunately, so many of your positives are offset by negatives. Many of your Art Deco buildings are a bit dilapidated and neglected now. Not only are they neglected, but what an amazing disappointment it was for us to walk down a main street (principal enough to have hosted a parade the weekend before), only to see display window after display window featuring “For Lease” signs and security bars. Your buildings are unused and unappreciated. What’s a tourist to do on a Saturday afternoon when the streets are empty and the only shop open for many blocks around was a CVS pharmacy (where even the security guard was saying into his cell phone to a friend, “It’s sooooo boring here right now”)?

A whole row of empty shows, all awaiting new life

Aside from the buildings, there seemed to me to be an unusually large number of vast, empty parking lots. I guess planning a motor city meant planning for a lot of parking spaces, but now that the place looks emptied out, it’s just a really sad vision. (I would have taken a photo of your empty parking lots, but they depressed me too much.)

Empty parking lots and a depressed car industry must naturally mean lack of maintenance and loss of love for your cars, right? I mean, I have never seen so many cars operating on the road in such disrepair. Our daughter had such fun pointing them out and squealing with delight, “There, I fixed it!”, while whipping out her camera. (We really are trying to teach her not to delight in misery, but when you see bumper after bumper being held up with bungee cords, or taillights duct-taped together, it is a bit entertaining.)

Now, even if most of your people were friendly, the one place where we noticed a few tired-sounding and unenthusiastic citizens were the workers at the mall. For a big mall with a Macy’s as anchor, it was pretty empty on the weekend—except for the ladies’ shoe department and Target—so no wonder the employees looked downcast. (Maybe I’m not being fair; being raised on SNL doesn’t mean that I should expect the Target lady to be there to entertain me.) But I did have to wonder what came first—the taciturn employees, or the vending machines dispensing iPods and ProActiv?

Finally, though I certainly never felt unsafe, it was mildly amusing (but a bit fear-inducing, nevertheless) to see a sign outside your IHOP having to remind patrons not to bring their pistols. It made me remember the talk floating in Halifax years ago when I was there, when the cable company switched from a Bangor, Maine feed to a Detroit feed, and some law-enforcers expressed the fear that this was the reason for rising crime rates. I know that you have a bit of a bad reputation that wasn’t confirmed while I was there, but signs like this one surely can’t be helping.

Now I know that I must have been sounding terribly critical, and I didn’t mean to be, honest. At your age, you just need a bit of understanding and a perhaps a make-over, that’s all. I’m confident that you’ll rediscover some of your splendour of bygone days, soon. And when you do, I promise that I’ll be back. But for now (and I don’t want to sound insulting in saying this), the best view I had all weekend was over the river, through the fog, at Windsor.